NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Josh Kelley is out with his first country album —10 years after he set out to make one.
The singer-songwriter says "Georgia Clay," released last week, was worth the wait because what happened after Nashville first turned him down for a record deal prepared him to make the best record of his career.
Kelley, 31, is now married to actress Katherine Heigl, and they've started a family. Both themes play heavily throughout the album.
"It's about me getting married to Katie. It's about us moving three times. It's about us adopting a little baby girl from South Korea who is now 2-years old," he said in a recent interview. "We got her when she was 9 months old and how that completely changed both of our lives."
Kelley wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks. Songs like "Baby Blue Eyes," "Don't You Go," "Two Cups of Coffee" and "Learning You" reflect his love for Heigl.
The couple married in Park City, Utah, on Dec. 23, 2007 and adopted Nancy Leigh, or Naleigh as they call her, in the fall of 2009. Kelley wrote the song "Naleigh Moon" about the moment where she accepted him as her dad.
"It was very touching and immediately turns you into a much more selfless person," he said. "To be an entertainer, you have to be pretty self-absorbed, to do it successfully. It just comes with the territory. It's what happens. I just remember when she came, I quit obsessing about everywhere I thought I should be. I just sort of let life happen, and once I let life happen, things started falling in place."
Kelley's younger brother Charles of Grammy-winning country group Lady Antebellum has seen him evolve as an artist through the years.
"His songwriting, it's a lot more honest, and I think he's a lot less selfish as a human being. I think we all are when we get married," said Charles in a phone interview. "It kind of calms you down, makes you kind of realize what's important in life. I think a lot of those songs reflect that."
The Augusta, Ga., native attempted to get a country record deal when he was a college student at the University of Mississippi, but when the Nashville labels passed him up, he signed with Hollywood Records and moved to Los Angeles.
"I was trying to be country from the very beginning, but everybody knows you've got to pay the bills," he said. "So I let those bluegrass songs become pop songs for as long as they could."
He's now thankful for those unanswered prayers.
Kelley went on to have two top 10 hits on Billboard's adult top 40 chart — 2003's "Amazing" and 2005's "Only You." He met Heigl on the set of his music video for "Only You" when she was cast as his love interest.
Kelley parted ways with Hollywood Records in 2005 and bought a house in Nashville. He set up a home studio and started his own label, DNK Records. That inspired Charles to move to Nashville with hometown friend Dave Haywood, where they soon met Hillary Scott and formed Lady Antebellum. The group benefited greatly from Kelley's busy touring schedule and visits to see Heigl in Los Angeles.
"We were able to just kind of have free reign of all these instruments and studio equipment and kind of develop our sound on our own," said Charles.
Kelley released four albums independently to moderate success. The experience of running a label made him a more helpful artist for the label he's on now, MCA Nashville.
"When you run your own label, you're your own manager, you're the treasurer, the CEO, you're the vice president. I don't know. I wore many, many different hats," he said. "I'm having the best time of my life only wearing one hat."
From watching his brother's career unfold, Charles Kelley said he had a very realistic view of how hard it is to make it in the music business.
"He's had to hustle kind of his whole career, and I think it shows how resilient he is as an artist," said Charles. "He never gave up, and there were definitely times that I think I probably would've thrown in the towel and called it quits. Josh just isn't that kind of guy. He stuck with it."Comment on this story
The song "Gone Like That" gave Kelley his country music break and led to him signing with MCA in 2009. He wrote and recorded it, intending to pitch it to another artist, but his publisher told him no one else would do it justice. That set the ball rolling for "Georgia Clay."
He is now fully prepared to start from square one as a country artist. Kelley has been touring with Miranda Lambert and will be opening selected shows on the North American leg of Taylor Swift's Speak Now World Tour this summer.
"There was no ego involved in this at all. ... I love it. I love the road. I like showing people what I'm made of," he said. "There's a hunger for me to be playing in front of bigger crowds and to have bigger success."